Helping parents respond with empathy and self-reflection
One of the major difficulties that stand in the way of building authentic connections in families where eating disorders arise is manipulation.
Often parents feel they are being held hostage by their child—that she/he is making conscious attempts to control them either through the eating disorder or through other psychological means. Many professionals who treat people with eating disorders also describe them as being highly manipulative. While this may be how their child’s behavior makes them feel, I typically caution parents (and professionals) to be wary of using the term “manipulative” when describing a person with an eating disorder. Here’s why:
Manipulative behavior is often a camouflaged way to get needs met, just as the eating disorder is. Opening up and asking for what they need is often much more emotionally complicated for someone who has an eating disorder than going about getting those needs met in less direct, more “manipulative” ways. Just wanting something can cause guilt or shame. Looking at and learning how to cope with these feelings is simply too difficult, thus the person seeks ways to get her needs met that don’t require confronting her emotions. In other cases, the manipulation is an attempt to express hostility that cannot otherwise be expressed. Some wish to control others through manipulation just as they have felt controlled. In all of these cases, what we see is that “manipulation” is not the outcome of some kind of internal personal defect, but rather a complex behavioral response to emotions.
Sometimes the child is quite aware of her/his manipulative behavior. Other times the behavior is so much a part of the personality that it feels quite natural and is invisible to the child. An excellent example of the latter is people pleasing: the act of making people around you happy so as to mitigate any negative emotional fallout—“If I make you happy, maybe you won’t get angry at me.” This is common for a person with an eating disorder, and it is a form of manipulation.
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